There are three basic mechanisms available for managing groundwater resources in California. These mechanisms are:
- management by local agencies under authority granted by state statute
- coordinated agreements between agencies and jurisdictions and ordinances and court adjudications
Throughout California, more than 2,000 local water agencies have varying degrees of authority over groundwater management. Many are using “innovative strategies” and are making advances on a number of fronts, including conservation and transparency.
Groundwater Management Overview
Some local officials and groundwater users have been reluctant to let state authorities take a larger role in groundwater management, preferring instead local oversight. California did not have a statewide groundwater management system until 2014.
Thus, groundwater management has been increasingly delegated to local authorities in recent decades. Local agencies are allowed to create groundwater management plans and raise revenue to pay for management. However, public agencies seeking state funding for groundwater projects must submit a management plan to the California Department of Water Resources.
Groundwater Management Challenges
Groundwater management discussions ultimately center on which agency is responsible for stewardship. Determining who has stewardship, however, is part of an ongoing debate.
In 2011, for instance, the Association of California Water Agencies issued a report that sustainable groundwater management must be met by local and regional agencies and not by centralized state regulation.
“Locally controlled groundwater management is effective because it is best able to respond to the particular circumstances of, and significant differences in, groundwater basins throughout the state,” ACWA said in the report. “Local expertise and direct reliance on the resource ensures immediate response to problems and trends, and provides the strongest basis for collaborative regional approaches.”
Meanwhile, the state’s Legislative Analyst Office advocates for the establishment of Active Management Areas. In places with “serious challenges” from overdraft and contamination, AMAs would have the authority to establish limits over groundwater extractions.
Another 2011 report from Stanford University determined that local water districts are taking on the challenge of groundwater protection even without state leadership. The report also said that basic information about groundwater management in the state is unavailable because there is no centralized data clearinghouse. This lack of statewide data is a problem not only for researchers but also for local water agencies wishing to learn from one another and develop a comprehensive regional strategy.
Groundwater Management Going Forward
DWR is now looking at groundwater elevation under the legislation passed in 2009. DWR officials agree that local control of groundwater remains the best option although state intervention is a possibility in areas of worsening overdraft. Groundwater management plans today serve as the anchor for such management at the local level.
As the discussion proceeds, all parties agree that groundwater management cannot exist unto itself, and must be a part of the overall solution to the state’s water woes that have eluded resolution for so long. That includes fixing the state’s surface water delivery system and focusing on groundwater quality that will affect availability for use in the future.
So far, management by local agencies under authority granted by state statute, coordinated agreements and ordinances and court adjudications have provided an excellent foundation for sustainable management and reflect the diversity of the state’s groundwater basins and the diverse beneficial uses of water from those basins.
State grants from voter approved bonds have funded much of the work throughout the state that has resulted in development of groundwater management plans, better understanding of groundwater, and improved groundwater management. Local Groundwater Assistance grants, Prop 13, Prop 50, and Prop 84 projects have financed these efforts.
Groundwater management took a step forward in 2014 with passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). One of the first steps is for the formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs). These entities are characterizing their groundwater based upon years of existing knowledge. That experience will help decide how much groundwater is available for pumping, the variations in groundwater depths, the rate of recharge, the most pressing water quality issues, how to craft a successful management plan and the degree to which pumping will be limited.
A 2016 report from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Davis noted that “ending groundwater overdraft has important implications statewide for water use and management, particularly in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, [because] ending Central Valley overdraft … might induce some major statewide operational changes, including large increases to Delta exports, more intensive conjunctive-use operations with increasing artificial and in-lieu recharge, and greater water scarcity for Central Valley agriculture.”